September 23, 2013, 3:38 PM — When Randal Carr and his wife moved from the Washington, D.C. area to Maine in 2002, they did so to slow down and escape the rat race. But Carr didn't want his IT skills, honed as a network administrator, to languish, so he began looking for volunteer opportunities that would let him use his skills and help his new community.
Carr and his wife were members of the Annapolis Coast Guard Auxiliary, and transferred their membership to the Bangor, Maine, chapter when they moved. The organization was looking for help to develop a website, and Carr volunteered his skills.
"Back in 2002, the technology was a bit more primitive; websites were just beginning to take hold as a necessity for these kinds of organizations," Carr says. "Since I was in IT, I knew a little bit about building a site, and it was a great way to practice my Web development skills, even though it was a fairly static page and no longer exists in that form," he says.
Now in a graduate-level IT program at Harvard University's extension school, Carr continues to hone his skills by consulting, and also is currently building a website for Carefree College in Carefree, Ariz., while he pursues his degree.
"When you're not working full-time or buried in contract work, there's no reason to sit around and be idle," Carr says. "You have to take initiative and show that you're willing to work hard and contribute, even if you're not going to be paid to do so," he says.
Attitude Is (Almost) Everything
That attitude can serve candidates well, and set them apart from other job seekers in an increasingly competitive job market, although it's best if your volunteer work is directly related to the type of job you're trying to land, says Rona Borre, CEO, President and Founder of Chicago, Ill.-based Instant Technology, an HR consulting and IT recruiting firm.
"Replacing your full-time job experiences with volunteer work can be helpful in general," Borre says. "If you're going above and beyond the usual to help your community in ways that aren't related to your job search, that shows something about your character."
"But you have to be able to tie that experience to your on-the-job skills: Did you work with a team? Did you come away with an actual 'work product' that you can showcase for a potential employee, whether that's a Web site, a piece of code, a written article," Borre says.
In addition, being able to highlight any acquired "soft skills" can be an advantage, she says. Depending on the type of volunteer work, there are opportunities to build leadership and management skills, or enhance your public speaking ability.